Some supermarket vegan and vegetarian meals are being marketed in stores as healthy options when they contain high levels of fat and salt, a BBC investigation has found .
Products marked ‘healthier choices’ and ‘healthy and diet meals’ were found to contain nearly half of the recommended maximum daily amount.
Experts in healthy eating said the actions of stores including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons was ‘unhelpful and ‘confusing’ for customers.
There are now calls for an independent supermarket regulator to check claims made in stores.
The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) said products identified as ‘healthy’ because they are vegetarian or vegan could still be highly processed and have high levels of salt, saturated fat and sugar.
The findings have been made by BBC Radio 5 Live Investigates .
Supermarkets have answered the criticism by saying they are committed to ‘promoting healthy eating’.
BBC researchers visited the top five supermarkets in the UK and found Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Tesco were stocking products high in salt and saturated fat in sections marked for healthier and diet meals.
A vegetarian steak slice in Morrisons in its ‘healthier choices’ section contained almost 10g of saturated fat. That equates to nearly half the recommended daily maximum.
Morrisons said the item ‘provides customers with a red-meat free alternative’.
In the ‘healthier choices’ section of Sainsbury’s researchers found an edamame, coconut and lemongrass falafel had 6g of saturated fat per half pack – around a third of the recommended maximum daily amount.
And a lamb hotpot in Tesco’s ‘healthy and diet meals’ section contained 8.5g of saturated fat, 45 per cent of the daily recommended maximum.
The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) said: "Supermarkets should be transparent about how they classify foods, and provide clear information about products."
"There must be incentives and penalties for presenting clear and accurate information.
"Perhaps there is potential to have an independent supermarket regulator. It is important that the good work done so far on labelling is not undermined."
Registered nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed said: "I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with eating them or consuming them in moderation – but telling consumers these are healthier options is a bit misleading."
And a British Dietetic Association (BDA) spokesperson said supermarkets had a "duty of care" to their customers.
"They [supermarkets] should be promoting and educating people to buy foods that actually are healthy – not just marketed as being so."
Other findings include:
- Morrisons’ own brand lentil hotpot had almost a third of the recommended maximum daily amount of salt – almost 2g – but was stocked in the "healthier choices" section.
- Smoked meat substitute slices marketed as healthy in Sainsbury’s contained almost two grams of salt per four slices, making them more salty than seawater.
Action on Salt, said: "Supermarkets should have stronger criteria in place for products allowed to be displayed in their ‘healthier choice’ sections."
Tesco told the BBC: "We are sorry that some of our products were mistakenly included under the ‘Healthy and Diet Meals’ sign and are rectifying this immediately."
It added that all nutritional information is clearly listed on packaging.
Sainsbury’s said: "Our range of healthier meals are currently stocked alongside our vegetarian and plant-based options. In some cases our signs were not updated to reflect this and we are putting this right."
It said it was committed to helping customers live "healthier lives".
Morrisons said: "Our ‘Healthier Choices’ section provides customers with the option to buy an item that is healthier than a product that meets a similar need. A ‘Healthier Choices’ cheese will be substantially lower in fat than ones we sell elsewhere but might still carry a red traffic light label."